a dab of poetry (bring your umbrella).

I think we can all agree that it’s important, if you’re going to poet around, to do your best to be a good poet.  The last thing people need is terrible verse.

This reminded me of a little story I thought you might enjoy, namely, the story of how poetry came to men.

According to the Anglo-Saxons, vernacular poetry was introduced by the coming of an angel to Cædmon, an old and pretty simple brother in a community of monks.  A major thing to do if you are a monk, at least back in the day of “classic” monking, would be to sit around and drink a lot of beer at a beer-drinking party (gebeorscipe).  If you were all fighting men, then you’d probably take the opportunity to bragging and/or ragging regarding yourself and others, respectively.  But the monks would pass around a harp and sing instead, although I guess whatever they were singing wouldn’t qualify as real art, being as the angel hadn’t come to Cædmon yet.  Or, more likely, it’s Latin, because he’s yet to invent Old English poetry.  I wasn’t there; I can’t say.

ANYWAY.  Our poor protagonist couldn’t sing, so when the harp came around, he’d leave the party in shame and go sit in the stables.  Harsh, but fair.  No one likes the guy who won’t karaoke with everyone else.  Take your lumps, C.

Anyway, our boy is sleeping out with the herd when he’s visited by an angel, who tells him straight up: “sing me hwæthwugu.”  Er, “sing me something.”  Caedmon pleads off; the whole reason he’s sleeping is to avoid singing.  Mr. Dreamy insists: “sing me frumsceaft.”  That is, “sing me creation.”  The nightmare becomes a dream as Cædmon finds himself inspired to sing the most beautiful and virtuous songs.  And he soon becomes renowned for his verse, which never dwells on the “lying or idle.”  Get out of here, fiction.

That wasn’t even the story I meant to tell though.  It’s more for contrast with the Norse origin of poetry, which is quite a different matter.

Dwarves can make anything out of anything; for example, the chain that binds Fenris out of a woman’s beard and bird spit, among other things.  In this particular case, they’ve made mead not out of just honey, but also the blood of the wisest man in the world, whom they murdered for this purpose.  So not only could one get loaded off it, but also become a great poet or scholar.  I think this is what Faulkner was going for.

The mead falls into the hands of a giant family.  Odin hears of it and wants it; this is the same fellow who traded his eye and speared himself to Yggdrasill for over a week for magical knowledge, after all.  Odin, after adventures that include tricking nine slaves into slitting one another’s throats WITH SCYTHES (which I’m pretty sure just knocks your head off too) and seducing the giant’s daughter while masquerading as a workman (the origin of farmer’s daughters jokes?  could be a dissertation here.), is allowed three swigs of the mead.  He makes sure that his three swigs finish off the entire supply and, with cheeks a-puffed, he transforms into an eagle and heads for Asgard.

Now, bird-shapes are a dime a dozen in Norse mythology, so Suttung the giant is swooping after him in a flash, and since he’s not laden down with mead, he’s catching up.  The other gods set out some jugs, and as soon as Odin clears the wall, he spits the mead into them for distribution to the Æsir and human skalds.  Success!

However, as we learn in Snorri’s Prose Edda:

It was such a close call, with Suttung almost catching him, that he blew some of the mead out of his rear.  No one paid attention to this part, and whoever wanted it took it; we call this the bad poets’ portion.

I’m not sure whether the English or Norse version of the story is preferable.  With the exception of the fact that it’s a divine gift, they don’t have much in common.  But at least the Norse account for the fact that there are undeniably shitty poets.  Here’s hoping I don’t turn out to be one.


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